Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

Sherlock_Holmes_and_the_Voice_of_TerrorAccording to the publicity department, in 1942 Universal Pictures closed a $300,000 deal with the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to make a series of Sherlock Holmes second features. The option would last for 7 years and provide access to 21 of the original short stories. Ultimately 12 films would be made, all starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, reprising the roles they had already played screen and on radio but this time they would be set in contemporary times. The first pitted the celebrated Victorian heroes against the Nazis …

The following is offered for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.


Universal Sherlock Holmes # 1
Source material by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: His Last Bow (1917)
Sample dialogue: “Elementary, my dear Watson”
Original filming dates: 6 May to 23 May 1942
Sherlock in disguise: no
Universal’s Baker Street Regulars: One of the joys of this series is spotting the appearances of the various members of the stock company of supporting actors who appeared throughout the series in a variety of roles, sometimes as villains and sometimes as victims. In this one we have Henry Daniell (1/3), who would later also get to play Moriarty; Olaf Hytten (1/6) who gets a decent role as Fabian Prentiss; and Gavin Muir (1/4) as the eponymous voice; and Hillary Brooke (1/3), who here has a bit role as a driver and would soon graduate to leading lady status; and Harry ‘The Henchman’ Cording (1/8), who hes one of the best scenes in the film as an old lag who discovers to his horror that Holmes got him put away for 10 years due to his own stupidity.

The original story:
This tale of espionage, subtitled ‘The War Service of Sherlock Holmes’ is told in the third person (and not, therefore, narrated by Watson). The focus in the first half is almost entirely on the activities of Von Bork, a German agent who, on the eve of The Great War, is preparing to leave England with the a vast amount of intelligence he has accumulated over a period of 4 years. He awaits the arrival of Altamont, an Irish-American who will sell copies of crucial Naval secrets. However, his plans are scuppered as ‘Altamont’ turns out to be Sherlock Holmes in disguise, who instead of the secrets delivers a copy of his new book on beekeeping!

SH-and-the-Voice-of-Terror02

This is a slight patriotic vignette, written at the height of the war, mostly notable for its rousing final speech, which made its way into Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror.

“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.”

The Film:
After playing Holmes and Watson in two period films at Fox in 1939 – The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce continued to play the characters very successfully on radio. It seems that Fox, already disconcerted by the closing of foreign markets after the outbreak of war, ultimately grew weary of dealing with the notoriously difficult Doyle estate and opted not to continue with its Holmes and Watson series. Indeed, it was in the process of retiring its various recurring detective characters anyway – within a couple of years their Charlie Chan, Mr Moto and Mike Shayne series would be no more. Ultimately the Doyle family struck a deal with Universal Studios for a series of medium budget support pictures (in the US they would frequently be paired with Abbott and Costello comedies in fact) to be made at a rate of three a year.

SH-and-the-Voice-of-Terror03

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror owes very little to the original story other than Van Bork, the wartime setting and the final speech. Instead, in a story originally produced under the working title Sherlock Holmes Saves London, the great hero squares off against a Nazi fifth column on British soil, a mole at the height of the government’s top-secret ‘intelligence council’ and propaganda broadcasts from Germany clearly based on the activities of ‘Lord Haw Haw.’  Holmes film adaptations up until then, and there had been dozens, had almost always been set in the present day – and so were these, both to reduce the budget and in the hope of finding an audience wanting to see stories about the war after America entered the conflict. Universal none the less felt the need to explain this slightly anachronistic approach of having the Nazis as the villains, especially given that the two previous entries the acting duo had made at Fox were (pretty much uniquely up to that point) period films set in the Victorian era (there is even an amusing joke with Holmes going for his deerstalker on the hat stand, and Watson rebuking him, “You promised ….” before he puts a Trilby on instead):

“SHERLOCK HOLMES, the immortal character of fiction created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging. In solving significant problems of the present day he remains – as ever – the supreme master of deductive reasoning.” – opening title card from Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror

SH-and-the-Voice-of-Terror04

To help investigate a series of attacks on British soil (mainly represented with stock footage and scenes from previous Universal movies like The Invisible Man and Saboteur), Holmes engages a tart with a golden heart, Kitty, who is clearly based on the same-named character from the ‘The Illustrious Client.’ This takes place in a rather large Limehouse tavern, which emphasises the sheer splendour of Woody Bredell’s cinematography (he would go on to shoot such classic Film Noir for the studio as Phantom Lady and The Killers). No Sherlock Holmes movie would ever be shot in such fine expressionistic fashion again. The main villain is played by Thomas Gomez, the thick-set Broadway actor here making a remarkable on-screen debut (he would later play Moriarty to Rathbone’s Holmes on stage), while Kitty is played by studio stalwart Evelyn Ankers. Kitty ends up being the Nazi’s mistress in what was, for its day, a surprisingly adult depiction of their relationship. But then, the Holmes universe of this film is wonderfully abstract …

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The Universal Studios series of 12 Holmes adventures is decidedly sui generis. For instance, Baker Street remains utterly Victorian, as does the tavern where Kitty dwells, while the plot couldn’t be more up-to-date, with much emphasis on new-fangled technology like hidden patterns in radio transmissions – Sherlock even has a lightbulb at the end of his walking stick! The look is Noir but the climax is Gothic, being set in a bombed out church, albeit one taken over by Gestapo officers in their uniforms. And then there is Rathbone’s decidedly bohemian haircut, which was even the subject of jokes in Punch magazine at the time (after the first 3 films he would revert to the traditional swept back look, thank goodness). One assumes it was meant to look a bit more modern and also make the actor look younger (he was in fact, amazingly, 3 years older than Nigel Bruce and turned 50 shortly after the end of filming).

SH-VOT2

The first film, in its mixture of old and modern, doesn’t quite work but once Roy William Neill took over as both director (with Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon) and producer of the series (especially after the initial block of three films, the overall approach to which were planned out before he came on board), the style would become much more Gothic and contemporary references to the war would soon be dropped. This becomes very clear from Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, his first as official producer. A slightly off-centre beginning then, but an exceptionally good-looking one with a great cast and a smashing theme tune by Frank Skinner too.

The Universal Studios Sherlock Holmes series (1942-1946)

  1. Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)
  2. Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)
  3. Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)
  4. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)
  5. The Spider Woman (1944)
  6. The Scarlet Claw (1944)
  7. The Pearl of Death (1944)
  8. Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear (1945)
  9. Pursuit to Algiers (1945)
  10. The Woman in Green (1945)
  11. Terror by Night (1946)
  12. Dressed to Kill (1946)

For my microsite dedicated to this series of film, click here.

SH-and-the-Voice-of-Terror

DVD Availability: Available in terrific editions on DVD and Blu-ray the world over, derived from the restorations made by UCLA. All look decent – some, such as Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, looks absolutely terrific.

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)
Director: John Rawlins
Producer: Howard Benedict
Screenplay: Lynn Riggs, John Bright, Robert Hardy Andrews
Cinematography: Woody Bredell
Art Direction: Jack Otterson
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr Watson), Mary Gordon (Mrs Hudson), Thomas Gomez, Evelyn Ankers, Henry Daniell, Reginald Denny (Von Bock)

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in Arthur Conan Doyle, England, Film Noir, Sherlock Holmes, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

67 Responses to Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

  1. A very decent collection there, Sergio. What I think is interesting is that so many actors didn’t make the transition from radio to film very well (or to TV, for the matter of that). The different media really require different skills, and not everyone has them all.

    • Thanks Margot – for many, Rathbone and Bruce epitomise Holmes and Watson and I am really enjoying watching the films again – they were a clear inspiration for the new Sherlock series starring Benedict Cumberbatch too!

  2. Santosh Iyer says:

    All the12 films are available on You Tube.

    • Not legally though (well, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, The Woman in Green, Terror by Night and Dressed to Kill are allegedly public domain, but only in the US, not anywgere else ) so I’m dodging that 🙂

  3. Santosh Iyer says:

    4 of the films (Secret Weapon, Woman in Green, Terror by Night and Dressed to Kill) are also available in colour versions, having been computer colourised by Legend Films in 2006.

    • I do tend to hate ‘colorized’ films – but it seems that this was done because these titles were out of copyright, so by adding colour that version could be copyrighted again!

  4. tracybham says:

    Sounds like fun. We will have to seek some of these out. Thanks for all of this information.

  5. Mike says:

    Great review, Sergio – in our house these films are complete favourites, with Mrs Mike and I having (separately) watched them on BBC2 as kids when they were the classic early evening entertainment, through to buying the boxset when it came out (in fact, when we do move to HD this will definitely be on the list of early purchases).

    All the ‘wartime’ Holmes are favourites and I especially like this one for its disembodied voice of terror. I like that you highlighted the stylised and slightly surreal mixture of the contemporary plot line and Victorian locations, as though it can’t quite leave Holmes’s traditional setting. Less fond of the Rathbone haircut, but the patriotic speech with its east wind at the close is lovely stuff. Thanks for sparking those memories, mate.

    • My pleasure Mike – and if you and the Missus do take the plunge, make sure you get the Blu-ray set available from Koch in Italy and Germany – for what you get (all 14 films, including the two Fox titles, with lots of extras) at arounf 30 euros it is an absolute bargain! Amazon Italy currently has it for 33 euros (the German price is now back up to 48). Both are copmletely English friendly and you can turns the subtitles off – go on, get on the badwagon – you know you want to … 🙂

      • Mike says:

        Ha ha I do want to but it’s likely to be in a couple of months because of other expenses and commitments (e.g. Middlesbrough FC in the playoffs). Mrs Mike was insistent that, once purchased, I didn’t start replacing everything with HD versions, and my response was that a new set of Rathbone-Bruce Holmes flicks was definitely at the top of the list. Just got to be done.

        • Well done (and good luck with the footie of course).

        • Colin says:

          I wouldn’t worry about it, Mike. I certainly haven’t gone about trying to replace everything with HD versions – I could never afford such a thing anyway – as lots still looks just fine to my eyes.

          • I would really second that – for instance, the box set of the Merton Park Edgar Wallace films that Network put out look amazing on DVD and a Blu-ray would be nice but I just don’t think you could squeeze a lot more out of them. On the other hand, sometimes the masters are not greatly improved, which was (sadly) the case when they put out The Quiller Memorandum too. In the case of the Holmes films, they do look rather splendid in HD though …

          • Colin says:

            Yeah, you just gotta take it on a case by case basis.

          • Mike says:

            Not a worry so much, Colin, but it’s nice to think of picking up those Masters of Cinema sets, for instance, in the best possible definition.

          • Arrow and Masters of Cinema, in the UK, along with BFI and Second Sight, are absolutely the first and best reason for going Blu-ray. There is also a ton of great material being released in English-friendly versions in Germany. Only a small amount of great content, like the Criterion, Olive and Kino titles, are region-locked – all releases from Warner and Paramount and the like are region-free and many of the Masters of Cinema releases do port Criterion content. I find them horribly over-proced, but the ‘Twilight Time’ releases in the US are locked too.

          • Colin says:

            Speaking for myself, Mike, I’ve been pretty selective (on my budget you have to be!) and replaced either a big favorite or one where I found the original DVD lacking.

          • I would consider picture upgrade a major factor and any new extras. Where I think the DVD quality is above-average I am not so worried. On the other hand, I have just been buying as many Arrow releases as I can afford – all their Mario Bava and Brian De Palma titles are terrific (well, not happy about the teal look of PHANTOM OF PARADISE)

  6. Colin says:

    Rathbone and Bruce are my favorite Holmes and Watson. Most people will opt for Brett, but these guys were the first ones i saw in the roles and therefore have a special place in my heart.
    The modern settings and vague connections to the original stories don’t bother me in the least – more sacrilege – as those original works sometimes bored me a little.
    I agree this one is beautifully shot but I think the series didn’t hit it’s stride till Neill took over and brought in the sense of creepiness, and got rid of that Godawful haircut – even as a youngster I thought that was an appalling bit of barbering.
    I guess you’re going to be working your way through the whole series bit by bit?

    • Nailed it chum – and yes, I am planning to go through all of them – next review in May when Neill starts getting to work and brings Moriarty back (or, as he is credited ‘Moriarity’!). Like Mike, I remember watching this in BBC2 in the late 70s and loving them. But I have to say, I am a huge fan anyway – I thought Brett was wonderfil and was just rewatching the Cumberbatch at the weekend – all smashing fellows! The Blu-ray set from Koch is well worth having and still available at a nbargain pricxe from Amazon in Italy … (as I may have mentioned to Mike …)

      • Colin says:

        Great – lots to look forward to in the future. I’m going to have to pick up one of those BD sets, not that I’m particularly displeased with the old Optimum DVDs I have.

        Like you and Mike, I remember catching these on BBC2 back in the day, and then a year or two later on Irish TV (RTE2). I recall the latter running these at 9pm on Thursdays, and then following them up with full seasons of The Lone Wolf and Boston Blackie. Can you imagine a mainstream network channel scheduling that kind of content now, let alone at a prime time slot like 9pm?

        • Great scheduling there was, once upon a time, though I dare say we all bitched and moaned about it at the time 🙂 Mind you, the scheduling was often a bit perverse (somewhat late at night, pre VCR in my case) so that there would be these great Moto and Chan film at very odd hours on Channel 4 as I recall

          • Colin says:

            Yes, C4 did put some of that stuff on in he wee small hours.
            For me, Irish TV was a major boon at the time – aside from the aforementioned series, I got to see every single Chan, Moto, Bulldog Drummond and Crime Doctor film, and a fair few Whistler titles too.

          • Which does sound really fab. Crime Doctor is now particularly unavailable it seems … We should be grateful that the at least the Chan and Moto titles have been treated so handsomely on home video, though the Holmes film trump them all in this regard at least. Can’t think of another series detective of the 30s and 40s on Blu-ray – am I missing one?

          • Colin says:

            Nope, I think that’s it so far. I’m actually grateful we’ve got as many as we have on DVD – mind you, I’d probably buy each and every one, were it possible.

          • We are SO the last generation that is thinking like that … it’s a blinking shame, that’s what I call it. Right, back to Baker Street and another crack at those Nazis 🙂

          • Colin says:

            Indeed we are, the last outpost of cultural nostalgia. But we’re still here, dammit! 🙂

          • Trouble is, if this were Riding the High Country (the movie, not that spiffing blog), I would probably be the camel 🙂

          • Colin says:

            Ha Ha! Still, so long as you get home of an evening and feel justified, that’s all that matters.

          • Yes, well, certainly an aspiration 🙂

  7. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I do *love* Rathbone as Holmes – he’s a quite wonderful actor – but I long for the Victorian setting, which is so much part of the appeal of Holmes for me…

    • I do like the way the series increasingly went for a sort of ersatz Victoiriana as it progressed – I’ll be getting to that with later reviews but we have the first two which are genuinely in period at least!

      • Colin says:

        One of the great things about the series, as you alluded to in the review, is the way the Baker Street set retains much of the Victorian flavor even the stories take place in the 40s, and the atmosphere of some of the later entries captures some of that Gothic mood too.

        • It’s an eccentric view that I really like – the idea of Holmes and Watson as these eternal figures (rather like Jack the Ripper in the Bloch story) is just incredibly appealing!

          • Colin says:

            Have you had a chance to see that episode yet? I think you’ll like it.

          • Not yet – saving it for the Bank holiday weekend (that and Hostile Witness in fact – expect a review to be posted very soon) 🙂

          • Todd Mason says:

            You know, I haven’t revisited the episode since picking up my THRILLER box a few years back…not actually Bloch’s best early effort, but the one that haunted him the most until Mr. Bates managed to even more overwhelm his career in the public eye…

          • Really looking forward to it. Yes, with Bloch it will always be Jack the Ripper and Norman’s wayward ma – saw the first season of Bates Motel and liked it quite a bit – you watching?

  8. Bev Hankins says:

    As I mentioned on Facebook, this is where I fell in love with Sherlock on-screen. The movies were regularly shown on Saturday and Sunday afternoons here in the States (back in the days before AMC and a zillion other channels). Rathbone was my reigning favorite as Holmes until Jeremy Brett came along. And I still have a particular fondness for him. If the films had actually been done in period and had played Watson as less of a dense old duffer, then I would be hard-pressed to choose between the two.

    • Thanks Bev – these films are highly imperfect and yet they occupy a very specific, even unique, Holmesian universe – and really enjoying going through them one by one. Things perk up considerably in the next entry, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943), which sees the entry of Lestrade and Moriarty in the series!

  9. Santosh Iyer says:

    Sherlock Holmes radio plays starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are available at
    http://archive.org/details/HQSherlockRathboneTCS
    and
    http://www.rathboneandbruce.net/the-new-adventures-of-sherlock-holmes.html

  10. Richard says:

    I have them all, have seen them all, many on television back when, often late night, and then twice through the set, and a couple of them more than that. I have the complete set of Brett, but these are a joy to watch just for what they are, and it’s always nice to hear Rathbone’s voice.

  11. Sergio, I have almost no memories of Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, though quite a few of Jeremy Brett in the role. I’m pretty sure I won’t be the only one in my neck of the woods to say so. I’m glad there’s a DVD collection of all twelve films. That said, your review is inspiring me to read some of the Sherlock Holmes stories right away, if not watch his films.

  12. Todd Mason says:

    Well, I can certainly see why you might be looking at ELEMENTARY as well (even if you don’t find Ms. Liu as easy to watch as I do)…somehow I suspect we have, however briefly, discussed such matters as the Russian Holmes telefilms and Michael Chabon’s fine novella “The Final Solution”…

    • Oh, I find the lovely Miss Liu exceptionally easy on the eye chum 🙂 I have not seen the Russian adaptations but I did review the Chabon once upon a while ago in the early days of this blog – right here

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        The Soviet television film series on Sherlock Holmes (1979-86) are superb and worth seeing. The episodes are very close to the literary source. Even the characters of Holmes and Watson are faithfully depicted, though Holmes is shown as more easy-going. In fact, Livanov who played the part of Holmes very closely resembled the drawings of Sherlock Holmes that accompanied Conan Doyle’s original stories in the Strand Magazine. He was given some award by the British Government for his portrayal of Holmes.

  13. Simon says:

    Little known fact..Nigel Bruce was Edward Hardwicke’s godfather. He and Sir Cedrick Hardwicke worked together a lot in Hollywood in the 40’s.

    • Thanks for that Simon – Bruce was certainly one of the true grandees of the British outpost in Hollywood in the Golden Age. I love the Hardwicke and Brett series (and I thought David Burke was also truly magnificent as Watson).

  14. badblokebob says:

    I too first saw and loved these as a kid, though my time was a bit later and they were mostly on around 7-9am during the holidays. I’ve been working my way through the whole set (ridiculously slowly) over the past few years, discovering I’d not even seen most of them!

    Thanks for the tip about the Italian Blu-ray also. Sorely tempted…

  15. Pingback: Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943) | Tipping My Fedora

  16. Pingback: Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943) | Tipping My Fedora

  17. Colin says:

    Just revisiting this post to mention I revisited the movie last night. You know, whether it was the mood I was in or whatever, I thoroughly enjoyed the film, much more than I had done on any previous viewings. The marvelous cinematography struck me again, and the wartime jingoism and even the hairstyle didn’t bug as much as I remembered. I spent a very pleasant hour with this one.

  18. Pingback: The Pearl of Death (1944) | Tipping My Fedora

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